UK: Face veils can now be banned in the classroom
Lord Falconer, a Cabinet minister, said that this also included other Islamic religious garments such as the full-length jilbab gown. He claimed that common sense rather than concerns about human rights should govern what pupils wear to school. His declaration to a head teachers’ conference yesterday will be welcomed by the profession and many parents.
A spokesman for the National Association of Head Teachers said: “A return to common sense has been our policy all along. Uniform policy should be worked out in consultation with an entire community, not based on the interests of one section.”
But critics of the Government’s Human Rights Act questioned why schools have had to face massive legal battles to uphold uniform policy.
Nick Seaton, of the Campaign for Real Education, said: “The Human Rights Act has nothing to do with common sense. It’s no wonder that teachers are left so confused by these issues.”
Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor who is a close friend of Tony Blair, told the head teachers’ national conference that he backed the decision of a Luton school to stop Muslim pupil Shabina Begum from wearing a jilbab gown to class.
The teenager took legal action against Denbigh High School in 2002, citing the right to “freedom of thought, religion and expression.” She won an earlier ruling at the Court of Appeal that her human rights had been violated when she was told by a teacher to go home and change into a uniform approved by the school. But Law Lords last year ruled that the school had been justified in its decision. “The case showed how uniform can be a difficult issue and one where head teachers and the school’s governing body have to think extremely carefully,” said the Lord Chancellor. “But more than that, it showed that common sense and human rights are entirely in line with each other. The case supports my argument that the head teacher, acting properly and sensibly, is going to be in line with the Human Rights Act. There was no breach of human rights, or of the Human Rights Act, because a common-sense decision had been made.”
In another case this year, a Muslim classroom assistant sacked for refusing to remove her full-face veil lost a legal case claiming discrimination. Aishah Azmi was told not to wear the veil after pupils at Headfield Church of England School in Dewsbury, West Yorks, said they could not understand her. Mrs Azmi, 24, refused to remove her niqab and was suspended. She was later sacked from her £15,000-a-year job after an employment tribunal ruled she was not the victim of discrimination.
In his speech, Lord Falconer said: “My message is a simple one. Human rights are common sense. If you have to deal with human rights issues and you find yourself being drawn, by circumstances or by advice, into decisions or actions which seem to you not common sense, then my guidance to you is: Stop. That is what the Act allows for. That is what the guidance promotes. That is what the courts have repeatedly upheld.”
But Dominic Grieve, the Shadow Attorney General, said: “The Lord Chancellor is ignoring reality if he glosses over the fact that the Human Rights Act has encouraged challenges of the kind we have seen. It’s very important that human rights should be seen by the public as being rooted in common sense. When that doesn’t happen it brings the system into disrepute.” Tory backbencher Philip Davies said: “Lord Falconer is going round with his eyes closed if he can’t see the trouble the Human Rights Act is causing. It has undermined the right of just about everyone to make sensible decisions with this Act hanging over them.”
Earlier this year, the Education Department sent out guidance to schools advising them that full-face veils could be banned under uniform rules.